Norah O’Donnell on Tuesday kicked off a CBS News series on how the military has failed to address domestic violence, a two-year investigative project that builds on extensive earlier reporting about sexual assault in the armed forces.
The CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor told Deadline that “reporting on sexual abuse, assault and domestic violence is the hardest story I have ever covered. And the reason is, to sit across a room from women who have suffered these abuses, it is just incredibly painful to hear.”
CBS Mornings aired the first part of the series, which featured three survivors, including Erica Johnson, a now retired master sergeant who in 2019 told Air Force leaders that she was physically and sexually assaulted by someone with whom she was in an intimate relationship. “There was no doubt in my mind he was going to kill me,” she told CBS News. That led to an investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, yet she was told that the commander would take no action.
“It’s incredibly hard to get survivors to actually do interviews,” O’Donnell said. “They are incredibly fearful. Then, in trying to, with great care, uncover what happened to them, and gingerly ask them to explain the type of abuse that they suffered, it leads to a lot of emotional trauma. And so these interviews are full of crying on both sides, not only by the survivors, but also myself and our producers.”
She added, “I really commend the bravery of the women who have come forward, because many of them are fearful and continue to be fearful. But I have said this before: I really believe that abuse fosters in silence. And we have to report about abuse harassment and assault, and only then will it bring about change.”
O’Donnell credited producers Kristin Steve and Adam Verdugo, as well as Len Tepper, the executive director fo the CBS News Investigative Unit. They interviewed almost 40 survivors, with four agreeing to go on camera. Another woman will be featured in a segment on CBS Evening News on Tuesday evening.
“It’s very hard to get women to come on camera and talk about what they’ve experienced,” O”Donnell said. “Ultimately they share their stories because they want there to be change. They want the military to address what is a real problem. They don’t feel alone. They feel like this is an epidemic, and that every step of the way, as Erica said this morning, they have been betrayed by the U.S. military.”
She said that getting survivors to speak on camera “requires months and months of talking to them and hearing their stories and reassuring them, and having other survivors talk to them and decide that it is a good idea to come forward, offering them assistance after the story airs.”
CBS News reported that about 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported since 2015. But the Pentagon has not kept comprehensive data on cases of violence and actions taken, even though the law requires it.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the network that “these crimes have profoundly damaging, and sometimes lethal consequences for service members and our families, and fundamentally impact our combat readiness.” He formed an Independent Review Commission shortly after his confirmation earlier this year, and their recommendations included removing decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases, including domestic abuse, from the military chain of command. Instead, those decisions would be made by dedicated offices within each service.
That change is included in the latest defense authorization bill, which has cleared committee but now has to be approved by the House and the Senate.
“If that ultimately passes, that would be a watershed moment, and I believe it comes from not only some of these members of Congress speaking out, it follows the Vanessa Guillen case at Fort Hood, where she was brutally murdered,” O’Donnell said. “And that became a widely reported story that we reported on as well from the very beginning. A rallying cry. And then our reporting as well that has been exhaustive, as well as other people, has kind of led to this groundswell. In addition to the MeToo movement. I do think that there are a lot of these things that have collided, and it’s time for a MeToo movement in the military.”
The additional segments of the series will air on Wednesday.